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OPINION | REX NELSON: The toxic feed

by Rex Nelson | December 20, 2020 at 8:47 a.m.

It's not often that a story out of Searcy County makes The New York Times, The Washington Post and National Public Radio, but one did in November--for all the wrong reasons.

As the outcome of the presidential election became clear, the Marshall police chief went online.

"Will you and several hundred more go with me to D.C. and fight our way into the Congress and arrest every Democrat who has participated in this coup?" Lang Holland posted on Parler, a messaging site that has become popular with those on the far right. "We may have to shoot and kill many of the Communist B.L.M. and ANTIFA Democrat foot soldiers to accomplish this!!!"

For emphasis, the police chief (who clearly likes exclamation points) added: "Death to all Marxist Democrats. Take no prisoners leave no survivors!!"

After media outlets reported on his posts, Holland found himself out of a job. Marshall Mayor Kevin Elliott said Holland was hired about two years ago, and that he was unaware of the chief's political views until receiving screen shots of the posts. The mayor contacted lawyers at the Arkansas Municipal League for advice before firing Holland.

Here's how John Ismay described it in the Times: "The police chief's undoing came at breakneck speed. Quinn Foster, a 26-year-old Arkansan who runs the Ozarks Coalition, an anti-racist watch group, and shared screen shots of Mr. Holland's Parler posts with The New York Times, said he was alerted to the posts at 7 a.m. on a Saturday. An hour later he had taken screen shots of Mr. Holland's online statements on Parler that were then shared with the mayor's office in Marshall. By 3:20 p.m. the mayor's office released a statement saying that Chief Holland had resigned, effective immediately."

Meanwhile, the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission fired a wildlife enforcement officer after he posted an inflammatory meme on social media. The officer, Jay Hagan, was a 31-year veteran of the agency.

Commission Chairman Andrew Parker told this newspaper: "If you're going to use your badge, as in this example, as a profile picture and then post things that are offensive, that fuse is not very long when it comes to people's reactions. You suffer the consequences of that choice."

In Stuttgart, Police Chief Mark Duke received unwanted attention for a post he made on Facebook about the presidential election. Part of that post read: "I'm going to be just like all you Trump haters. Biden ain't my president. They are all criminals who cheated and stole this election."

Stuttgart Mayor David Earney issued a statement that read: "We are all aware of the negativity that can be spread on social media. I have accepted the apology and the regret from Police Chief Mark Duke for the divisive political post that appeared on Facebook after the presidential election. I propose a social media policy be drafted immediately through counsel of the city attorney for all city employees, council members and elected officials."

The hot water Duke found himself in came just more than two months after the local sheriff, Todd Wright, resigned at the request of the Arkansas County Quorum Court. The resignation occurred after Pine Bluff Commercial reported on a five-minute audio recording in which a man identified as the sheriff used a racial slur nine times after becoming upset that a woman he was with had spoken to a Black man in a grocery store.

Last Sunday, I wrote about people I know who are drowning in the fever swamps of social media. The Times' Charlie Warzel wrote about two people who revealed their Facebook account passwords so Warzel could see what their news feeds looked like in the weeks leading up to the election. Warzel was searching for older Americans whose news consumption had increased sharply in recent years.

Warzel described the feeds as "a dizzying mix of mundane middle-class American life and high-octane propaganda. ... The feed goes on like this--an infinite scroll of content without context. Touching family moments are interspersed with Bible quotes that look like Hallmark cards, hyperpartisan fearmongering and conspiratorial misinformation. ... What I observed is a platform that gathered our past and present friendships, colleagues, acquaintances and hobbies and slowly turned them into primary news sources. And made us miserable in the process."

Warzel said comment threads "exploded into drawn-out conspiratorial threads. Political disagreements started to read like dispatches from an alternative reality."

One man told Warzel that friends were posting more and more political memes with no link or citation. The man said, "Most times there's no real debate. Just anger."

"It was so disappointing to realize the hate that's out there," a woman told the newspaper. "I think that whatever you believe is your right. I hate the negativity and meanness. I think it's affecting the mood of everybody."

Warzel said of comment threads on Facebook: "Strangers, even in the most mundane of articles, launched into intense, acrimonious infighting. In most cases, commenters bypassed argumentation for convenient name-calling or escalated a civil discussion by posting contextless claims with no links or source. In many cases, it appeared that a post from one user would get shared by a friend into his or her networks."

One of Warzel's colleagues put it this way: "It's almost like if you were building a machine to make a country divisive and extreme--if you were to sit down and plan what that would look like, it would be this."

Warzel summed up the news feeds as "a sea of contextless news and acrimonious comments revealing their neighbors' worst selves." Sinking into this online cesspool can wind up costing people like Hagan (a man Parker described as "a really well-liked guy") their jobs.

The problem already was starting to build in 2017, but it was exacerbated by Donald Trump's four years in the White House.

"Trump has worked to equate disagreement with treason," Evan Osnos wrote last month in The New Yorker. "He has banished loyal opposition and called for the criminal investigation of ordinary opponents. In 'Audience of One,' the Times television critic James Poniewozik described Trump as the ultimate expression of 'the cultural anger machine,' an endless source of violent imagery that combined the spirit of 'Breaking Bad' and 'The Sopranos' with the dopamine-delivery system of hurricane coverage.

"For decades, Poniewozik wrote, Trump had essentially been a cable-news channel in human form--'loud, short of attention span, and addicted to conflict.' In the White House, 'he and cable had achieved the singularity, a meshing of man and machine.' "

Foster, the Arkansan who blew the whistle on the Marshall police chief, has been looking into a right-wing militia group known as the Arkansas Patriots. That group's members have been showing up at events with firearms. Some members claim to be current or former members of law enforcement. Foster also said a group known as the Ozark Mountain Proud Boys released a statement on Parler calling for Foster to be harmed.

Larry Diamond, a political scientist at Stanford's Hoover Institution, said such groups are more than just a toxic online presence.

"The level of armaments that these people have, the stockpiles of military-style weaponry and body armor, the high-volume gun clips--there's no precedent in American history for this, and that's why I think the current era is more dangerous than anything we've seen in decades."

Diamond added: "If you want to stop this, the answer is very simple. The Republican politicians who know better, in the House, the Senate, and the governorships have to speak up. If they don't put the preservation of democracy and civility over their own political careers, we're going to keep sliding down this path."

--–––––v–––––--

Rex Nelson is a senior editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

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